“You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
--Ygritte, ‘Game of Thrones’
Chapter 148 – Next
“Well, that was a mess,” Cao Shuang said sarcastically, a few days after the bloodshed at the brothel.
“One cannot account for all variables,” Huang Lang replied sagely.
“In normal circumstances I would have agreed with you,” Cao Shuang conceded. He then jabbed an accusatory finger towards Huang Ming. “But you! You should have told us about that… that giant woman.”
“I’m sorry,” Huang Ming replied contritely, “But I honestly did not know you are interested in such fetishes.”
Cao Shuang’s face turned purple. “You know what I meant! Why did you not tell us that Nangong Xie and the Jins were connected?”
“Because there isn’t one! Or at least, that I know of,” Huang Ming protested. “I only met the Jin ambassador and his henchwoman fleetingly at the royal banquet, I had no idea Nangong Xie was even in the capital until you guys told me about him!”
‘Fleetingly my ass, you humiliated the ambassador in front of our king and gave his giantess a full body throw,’ Cao Shuang mentally thought angrily.
“Well, at least Nangong Xie is done,” Huang Lang intervened.
“Done? He escaped!” Cao Shuang exclaimed. “What is there to prevent him from blabbing everything that has happened to the Prime Minister? Or to the Jins?”
Huang Lang the Celestial Qilin smiled. “Do not worry about that. We all know the prime minister’s character. Do you think he will give Nangong Xie a reprieve for his failure? We have covered up what had happened, but leaked out just enough to cast a shadow on him. Rumours about a bloody turf war in the capital, at the same time when the Prime Minister’s guards became significantly reduced? Those whispers alone will stop Tong Xuan from probing too deeply into this matter lest he be implicated.”
Cao Shuang nodded grudgingly. Then he looked sourly at Huang Ming. “But what of the Jins? Why would they rescue Nangong Xie?”
Huang Ming pulled a face. ‘Why do you accept Ah Lang’s words and yet throw me the hard balls?’
But he knew why: they were brothers-in-law, tied together by Cao Tianyun. Obviously Cao Shuang would not want to come down too hard on his beloved sister’s husband. And thus Huang Ming would have to bear the hard questions.
“I have no idea,” he admitted with a shrug. “Maybe she likes him.”
“And who was the masked man in black?” Cao Shuang continued.
“I said I don’t know. Maybe he likes him too. He’s the Handsome Scholar after all,” Huang Ming answered exasperatedly.
“Enough with your jokes,” Huang Lang admonished. “The man is obviously skilled to have deflected Ms. Zhao’s spear, and the smoke bomb he used is an uncommon tool. I will have to trouble Muge Jian to investigate this further, our mysterious man might have ties to the martial underworld.”
Huang Ming was very curious about that very martial underworld, and rued the fact that he missed witnessing Muge Jian and his heroic friends for himself. He was only told later about how they had committed the greatest of slaughter on Nangong Xie’s thugs outside of the brothel… while Huang Ming was depending on Qiong Ying’s seductive dancing and Zhao Sunli’s spear strokes to save himself.
Were there masters who move around on flying swords? Do they use martial arts that cause auras to show up visibly? Did the usual tropes from Earth about mystical creatures, magical treasures and disembodied spirit teachers also exist? What about secret sects, cultivation and nonsense like contribution points to hamper their own growth? What about refining immortal pills and elixirs and magic weapon forging, were they real?
Speaking of magic weapons, Huang Ming was reminded about the buried fake antiques his friends had dreamt up back in Tianxin City and wondered if they had fooled someone yet…
His train of thought was interrupted by the arrival of Zhao Sunli.
“We might not have the time to investigate further,” she announced.
“What do you mean?”
“General Yin Yanzhao has informed me that the Jin ambassador Lord Aidi and his entourage have already announced that they are returning back to Jin. As General Yin had escorted them here, it is natural for him to do the same for the return journey,” Sunli reported.
‘You went to meet him again?’ Huang Ming left the question unsaid, as it would putting personal matters ahead of official business.
“That is perfect,” Cao Shuang said. “He could search the Jins for Nangong Xie.”
But Sunli shook her head. “I have asked, and the general was displeased,” she said with a frown. “He had sworn to gave them safe passage, and to search the Jin ambassador would be very insulting. They had placed their trust in him, and he would not violate it even for a cursory search.”
“But surely he could see…” Cao Shuang started. He curbed his tongue when he saw Sunli’s eyes flash warningly.
“I have asked, and he has refused,” she reiterated in a flat tone.
“Ah… I see,” Cao Shuang said. Huang Ming marvelled at the way the young woman was able to silence the governor’s son with a glare, and smiled.
Cao Shuang caught the snickering look and growled at him. “This changes nothing, we need to silence Nangong Xie once and for all.”
“Well if he wants to go to Jin, let him,” Huang Ming said. “We only plotted against Nangong Xie because he was close to the prime minister. If he is abandoning Tong Xuan on his own, it is all the better.”
Huang Lang tapped the table with his finger thoughtfully. “Well, that is not ideal, but that is one problem out of the way. However we have another problem,” he said. “General Yin leaving soon would hamper our designs for the next target, Commander Wang Hong.”
“I do not see the problem. I can kill him,” Sunli said, all fired up. She was already annoyed in the first place that Huang Ming had asked her to seek help regarding this matter. It was as if they were not confident in her ability to defeat Wang Hong by herself, which was all the more irritating considering that she had killed more men than anybody else in their little group.
Huang Ming saw that she was peeved. Her fiery disposition reminded him of her father, Zhao Tong the Thunderer.
“This is not just about killing Wang Hong, it is also about replacing him as commander of the Imperial Guard. Do you want the job?” he asked, raising an eyebrow questioningly.
Sunli paused. Did she want the job? She thought herself the equal of any man, but was becoming the leader of home guards whose main duty was protecting the king and patrolling the capital city really that desirable for her? She knew it was a prestigious rank and would all but ensure a noble’s rank later, and many would leap at the chance.
“No,” she said and pursed her lips. She had no desire to stay cooped up in the capital, only wearing her armour and spear in parades and the rare occasions when the king would leave the capital for a tour. She was a warrior at heart, she wanted to serve and fight.
Huang Ming nodded, understanding her decision.
“It would be difficult to lure Wang Hong out in the first place,” Huang Lang said.
“Oh?” Huang Ming vocalized.
“Wang Hong is a drunkard and a womanizer, but lately he has kept a low profile at home,” Huang Lang explained. Then he smiled faintly. “It is as if he was frightened to stay at home, after how Nangong Xie had disappeared,” he added wryly.
“Oh, now you’re blaming me about how well our plan worked? It wasn’t my fault that the trap became so large scaled,” Huang Ming complained. “Besides, the plan was your idea,” he added.
Huang Lang nodded. “You are right of course, and I apologize,” he said with all the sincerity of a conman. “This time we should let you take charge and make the plans yourself to deal with Wang Hong, lest we repeat our mistakes as before.”
Huang Ming glared at his glib-tongued brother. “You-!” Huang Ming started to exclaim furiously. Then he stopped, because the sparks of a plan suddenly came to him.
The others stared at Huang Ming, puzzled at his frozen stance: his hand half-raised, a finger half-bent when he was about to point rudely at Huang Lang. Seeing how Huang Ming’s eyes were looking far away, they turned to look questioningly at Huang Lang instead.
Huang Lang smiled, knowing that the gears were turning in his younger brother’s head.
He loves to plot and scheme,
In his eyes, a gleeful gleam.